Snowboards, maple syrup, Bernie Sanders... the american state of Vermont has many claims to fame but none more thrilling than its autumn spectacle, writes Lance Richardson.
Every year, around the end of September, deciduous forests across the north of America do something strange. You’re driving down a highway past woodland that has spent the summer an unassuming green – then, suddenly, seemingly in an instant, it’s as though the entire world has caught fire.
Sugar maples sway with a rich orange shimmer. Poplars and ash trees turn yellow, fluttering like a wall of flame. Patches of red and purple burst forth as quick, unexpected detonations, while oaks stud the hillsides like cooling embers. Even the hardy beech gets caught up in the blaze, fading into bronze and luscious gold. The cumulative effect is an engulfing inferno of colour, with stray sparks fluttering across your windscreen to gather on the road as drifts of leaves.
There are many places in New England – the region comprising Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut – in which to witness the uncanny metamorphosis that autumn brings. In New Hampshire there’s the legendary Kancamagus Highway, meandering 55 kilometres through the White Mountains. In Maine, Moosehead Lake reflects the trees in a double image of spectacular sepia. Near Plymouth, in Massachusetts, the autumn foliage is accompanied by cranberry bog harvests, reminding you that Thanksgiving is around the corner.
But king among the states is Vermont, where the dazzling forest is offset by bone-white houses, rocking chairs on porches and plump pumpkins that signal the arrival of harvest season.
Vermont is a leisurely day’s drive from New York City or an easy jump from the airport at Burlington. Its singular pleasures and fierce individualism – before joining the United States, Vermont had its own currency and militia and a strain of proud self-sufficiency remains strong today – make it a brilliant weekend escape. Autumn here is September to November and, while it can be hard to predict when the leaves will change, a good bet for fall viewing is the first two weeks of October. That’s when the drive from Whitingham to Brattleboro, in the south of the state, is mesmerising and a detour via Mount Snow offers a ride up a chairlift to survey the patchwork canopy from above.
What causes the hypnotic vividness of autumn’s colours? Temperature and soil moisture play a part but largely it has to do with the length of nights. The longer periods of darkness in autumn slow production of the chlorophyll that makes leaves appear green. When all the chlorophyll is destroyed, hidden pigments come to the fore: carotenoids (yellow, orange, brown) and anthocyanins (red, purple). Weather conditions enhance or diminish the effect, meaning a year of drought makes for a different show than one of plentiful rain.
Science can explain the biological process but it doesn’t capture how it feels to experience what American poet William Cullen Bryant described as “the year’s last, loveliest smile”. So many find solace in the spectacle that there’s a name for them in the US: “leaf peepers”, people who seek out “leaf peepshows”. Every September and October, the roads of New England fill with visitors inching along the byways, looking for the best vantage points for photographs.
It’s tempting to join the endless highway processions, paying your respects to Mother Nature, but one of the magic things about Vermont is how it rewards a little intrepid exploration in the back country. Take that region around Brattleboro. Sometimes the tarmac can disappear entirely, giving way to compacted gravel roads where houses flicker among the trees like hallucinations. Occasionally the GPS gets confused and sends you down a lane that looks as though it hasn’t been used since Vermont joined the Union in 1791. Just as you begin to feel lost, drifting around the colour wheel with no sense of direction, a town like Grafton appears.
Imagine a small gathering of pristine buildings, covered bridges, a working blacksmith and, all around it, a wild forest as varied in hue as a painter’s palette. Slow and stately, Grafton is exactly the kind of town best visited in autumn, its porches seemingly tailor-made for solitary admiration of the landscape.
“The light changes. The geese all migrate. The Earth starts to close,” says Grafton local Liz Bankowski. “We are so in tune with the demarcation of the seasons here. Most people, if you asked them, would tell you their favourite time of year is [autumn]. Everyone is obsessed with the foliage. It has a psychological impact, you know, because you find yourself beginning to prepare for winter.” ￼
A getaway in Grafton
About a four-hour drive from New York City, this town in southern Vermont is an ideal base for exploring autumn in the state.
Founded in 1801, The Grafton Inn is one of the oldest operating inns in the country and has hosted everyone from Rudyard Kipling to Paul Newman. Ask for an upstairs room to best enjoy the fog roiling over the forest in the morning like smoke rising from the fiery colours.
Drop by the town’s general store, MKT, which is co-owned by two young mothers dedicated to offering the best Vermont produce. One of them, Ali Hartman, says, “Grafton is so special. I commute [between here and] New York, where I work, and every time I get on the home stretch, I feel such relief.” Grab one of the generous sandwiches then walk over to Grafton Ponds, where hiking and mountain-biking trails wind up Bear Hill and offer stunning views of the woodlands’ changing foliage.
After a stroll in the woods, visit the Grafton Village Cheese Company, which produces tangy cheddar using milk from family suppliers. The main outpost is outside Brattleboro, on a former farm, where a million pounds of cheese is being matured at any given time. The 45-minute drive from Grafton to Brattleboro (stick to the paved road now) is spectacular but, then again, so is everything in Vermont.
The Jud Hartmann Gallery in Grafton sells bronzes of Mohawks and reclining mermaids. Hartmann was drawn to Grafton for its inspiring environment. “If you’re a sculptor or writer, it seems to me a tranquil place is more conducive to work,” he says. Also in town is the small but lovely Gallery North Star, which exhibits oils, watercolours, pastels and sculptures by more than 30 New England artists.
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